The absence of tourists brings to mind the city of fifty years ago. But also the distress of not being able to think of its future, or that of it residents – of how it will be when the pandemic ends, and when we return to normality. And perhaps for the fear that it all returns to the previous “normality”.
By Enzo Bon
23 April 2021
I close my eyes and walk a few meters on the deserted fondamenta. When I was a child I liked to test myself this way, to see how well I knew the places where I lived, the masegni, the stones. I’ve gone back to doing it today, this game, after years. Because even had I wanted to play it, the masses of tourists typically found in the city until last year would have certainly made it impossible. I am in Venice to sign important documents which must be sent immediately: an urgent task that could not be delayed. It has been a year, because of Covid, since I have returned to my city, which strangely, and contrary to some time ago, I’ve begun to miss.
I come down out of the parking lot at Piazzale Rome and move into the urban form I know so well. But it is not like usual. There is something strange in this city of few people, with the shutters lowered, with a strange, pleasant brackish smell. It’s as I’m closing my eyes that I notice the similarity. I recall a Sunday, between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. There are rides on Riva degli Schiavoni; I and some of my friends go there when we can. There are many people, a lot of kids, a constant clamor. And when it was time to go home, we enter a calle that takes us toward San Zaccaria. Here: this is the Venice that comes to mind today. After the hubbub of the rides, we realized, having crossed the fatal threshold of the calle, that the city was deserted, the shutters lowered, there’s a looming silence, and only few passersby to remind us that we lived in a unique and strange city.
I feel that sensation today, while I walk to my destination: it feels like time, as though by the mischievous game of a naughty fairy, has gone backwards, taking me back to the Venice that remains in the dreams of a child now become an old man.
And so I play around the city, having finished my institutional obligations, and I walk toward the center, which presents the desolation of a Sunday of 50 years ago, when the contrast between multitudes of people having fun on rides and the deserted calle nearby made my heart tighten, and sink into a sort of Leopardian sadness.
Piazza San Marco is emblematic of the Venice which has been transformed by the pandemic: only two officers, in their yellow uniforms, to take the place of thousands and thousands of faces, colors, sounds, and languages. I hear a strange rattle, always the same, almost rhythmic, which reminds me of the sound of the ropes slapping, due to waves, on the masts of the sailboats docked in the ports. I realize that it’s the ropes on the great flagpoles in front of the basilica, which are banging against the metal in the wind. It is a sound that I would never have heard among the thousands of noises of the Piazza that we are used to seeing, and which reminds of the strong and ancestral relationship that Venice has always had with the sea. A link which unfortunately has come to be artificially represented, until a few months ago, only by the passage of the cruise ships in the Bacino.
I continue my walk, and at the foot of the Accademia bridge I encounter three gondoliers in full dress, chatting; one of them has also brought along a beautiful French Boxer, who was peacefully taking the sun at its owner’s feet. Their gondolas are moored a few meters away, in the Canal Grande. The three know perfectly well that there won’t be any tourists to transport today; neither will there be serenades sung by improbable Romanian tenors, nor swearing at the vaporettos and boats causing waves. They are here, most likely, out of habit: to represent with their stripes a city that felt, until a few months ago, a sort of love and hate for tourists, who are simultaneously considered sacred and to be scammed.
I arrive at Zattere and I realize that in front of the Chiesa dei Gesuati there are large black stains on the masegni and on the marble of the sacristy. They are not pretty to look at, but even this dirtiness is something that recalls my childhood, when I would go fishing with my grandfather. Those big dark spots smell like the sea: it’s the black from the seppie which, when caught in the net, spray their last defense in the air. We would go in the evening, at dark, to fish for them, while they swam on the surface along the banks; then the waves in the canale della Giudecca, which more resembled a branch of the sea than a Venetian canal, made this type of fishing difficult, if not impossible. Now it is back in style due to the absence of motorboat waves and, perhaps, also of the economic thrill that tourism provided for many.
Along a fondamenta I find three souvenir shops, very close to one another and obviously closed: Venetian specialties, these stores were once called, but in the pre-Covid era nobody had the courage to call them that anymore. I approach one and glimpse, through the shutter, at the dark display case. Carnival masks of horrendous plastic; a few hats with dusty ostrich feathers; the long nose adorning a plague doctor mask, a tragic and relevant memento; the requisite little animals and some vases of Chinese glass. In the background, amongst the trinkets, something is moving: it is a plastic gondola, like those that at one time one brought home from a honeymoon in Venice and placed in the living room as an undying recollection, for children and grandchildren, of those happy, far away moments. For some strange reason the battery has not yet run down, and gondola continues to rock perpetually, tossed by the waves of an imaginary rio.
Now I am almost back to Piazzale Roma, after a few hours spent walking, thinking a little about the past and a bit about the present. I realize, however, and it really bothers me, how I’m unable to think about the future of Venice, of how the city will be when the pandemic is over, and when we’ll return to normality. Perhaps it’s because of the fear that everything will return to the previous normality, which was not at all normal.
Photographs by Enzo Bon
Enzo Bon: Venetian, class of 1955, Enzo Bon is married and lives in Treviso. He is a journalist, an expert in audio-visual and multimedia communication technologies, has worked for over twenty years for the institutional communications in the Public Administration, first as manager of the civic network “PoloEst” of the Province of Venice and then, from 2003 to 2016, as manager of the Press Office of the City of Venice. He was also managing director then editorial director of http://www.comune.venezia.it. Always committed to training, he has done a good deal of teaching on subjects related to communication.